BLONDE. Biographical cinema has just reached a new level [REVIEW]
Biographical cinema usually takes one of two paths: monumental or subversive. Filmmakers either give their heroes laurels or strip them of their uniqueness. Much less often, however, you can find a biopic that tries to understand its subject and let the viewers understand it. Fortunately, however, there are still artists such as Andrew Dominik who escape classification – his Blonde is an in-depth psychological portrait that I have not seen in the cinema for a long time.
The film, which sprouted in the imagination of the New Zealand director as early as 2010, went through various conceptual stages, at one point having Naomi Watts or Jessica Chastain in the center. It was only in March 2019 that it turned out that the character of Marilyn Monroe, the iconic, though tragic star of American cinema, will be played by the Cuban-Spanish actress Ana de Armas, who has been gradually climbing up the Hollywood star hierarchy since the announcement of the casting decision. Many viewers were concerned whether casting a Latina actress as an American symbol was the right decision, but with each promotional photo released, those fears were lessened. De Armas had already confirmed her acting talent, and when the evidence of her absolute metamorphosis on the set saw the light of day, Blonde aroused even greater appetites among viewers around the world. It remained to wait for September 28, 2022, when Dominik’s film debuted on Netflix.
This movie flows
Blonde is a challenge on many levels. It’s not just about the length – a psychological biopic of 2 hours 47 minutes can scare anyone away – but also about the way Andrew Dominik decided to show the life of Marilyn Monroe, or rather Norma Jeane Baker dressed in her new stage identity. Blonde begins with a fairly short, but crucial, sequence set during Norma Jeane’s 8th birthday. These few, maybe a dozen or so minutes for good define the later fate of a talented girl who throughout her adult life will not be able to get rid of the feeling of missing: a father, a mother, a child she was never allowed to have. Andrew Dominik does not reveal to us new, previously unknown chapters in the life of Marilyn Monroe – in adapting the novel by Joyce Carol Oates, he follows the same factual and fictional track, mixing real events with alleged ones. The visual layer of Blonde corresponds to this – Dominik stages and recreates Marilyn’s photos from legendary sessions or film premieres, at the same time weaving in his own formal ideas (multiple exposure, blurring, slowing down), which enliven the narrative matter of the film.
I want to reassure those who are a bit discouraged by the almost three-hour length of this work – Blonde flows, in a sense “overflows” from the screen to the viewer’s consciousness, so you don’t feel the passing of time at all. During the screening, one has the impression of putting together a puzzle, in which the director actively helps, successively giving the viewer further elements of the puzzle – let us add, a poignantly sad one. Norma Jeane Baker, brilliantly portrayed by Ana de Armas, was a victim all her life – only her tormentors changed. From the first chapter of her career to her untimely end, Marilyn Monroe has been at the mercy of men, regardless of her iconic status in the film industry and pop culture in general. “Eaten” by the eyes by millions of male gazes, reduced to the role of a sexual object, intellectually humiliated despite high ambitions – neither Norma Jeane nor her blond alter ego had a chance to become anything more than a pretty face. Anyway, nothing more was expected from her…
A painful story
Blonde defies generic patterns and elevates biographical cinema to a new level – closer to Pablo Larraín’s artistic biographical attempts, although Andrew Dominik can tell a more accessible and coherent story. At the same time, he does not try to spare the viewer – we will find here a lot of violence, both physical and mental, as well as those sad moments when the speeding train of Marilyn Monroe’s career begins to derail. Blonde is a rare example of a biographical film in which the main role is not the only advantage. Ana de Armas is great as Norma Jeane – this acting experience will probably stay with her forever – but the New Zealand director is able to encapsulate this performance with a strong, meaningful context and eclectic film form. This makes Blonde not just another biographical shell, from which an overwhelming emptiness peeks out. This is a story of flesh and blood – not so much a biography or a chronicle of an acting career, but a psychological portrait of a sensitive girl who fought with all her might to find a place for her real self under the artificially created persona of Marilyn Monroe: Norma Jeane Baker.
In the texts of film critics, especially the American ones, there are absurd accusations about the exploitative nature of the film and that Dominik, like many men in Norma Jeane Baker’s life, uses her – this time for simple shocking. What shocks me most of all is the scale of this film’s misunderstanding – this painful story of a dozen-or-so years-long struggle to preserve one’s identity, this poignantly sad chronicle of a cry for help. It is not without reason that the title of the film and its literary prototype does not mention MM in any way. Blonde does not say much about Marilyn Monroe’s subsequent adventures on film sets – she does say who Norma Jeane Baker was, the girl without whom Monroe could never exist.